The La Marzocco KB90: Better Living Through Ergonomics

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News flash, breaking, extra extra: working on an espresso machine all day long is fucking bad for you.

Repetitive motions in the workplace that engage small muscle groups can lead to serious injury. This not a theoretical construct. It is a reality with which the coffee industry must grapple going forward if it intends to protect its own and develop paths to career longevity. It’s not going away.

So—what if we just said like, “no“? What if through a combination of research and implementation, the coffee industry stepped up and made a concerted choice not injure its own? The worst thing about “barista wrist” is that it is, at least in theory, largely an avoidable condition. We can, in theory, invent our way out of it, design and engineer our way into a better reality for the baristas who help drive coffee as a culture and community.

What’s changing is the “in theory” part. This style of new tech is fast emerging, and now today La Marzocco has stepped into the fray in a major way. Today they’ve launched a new espresso machine, the KB90, that addresses the ergonomic reality of the barista profession in what I think is a fundamentally transformative and disruptive way. They’ve done so by correcting one of the main stress points: the small muscle movement motion by which a portafilter locks into the espresso machine grouphead.

The result may be the most ergonomic espresso machine ever made.

Think about it with me for a minute. On a traditional espresso machine—any brand, including all versions heretofore of gear by La Marzocco—you have a portafilter in one hand, and it’s your job to get that portafilter to lock in to a little set of pin locks hidden in a grouphead. You place the portafilter unseen in the grouphead, then you twist a little bit with your wrist, maybe adjust with your thumb, and the portafilter locks into place.

This motion, though intimidating as all get out for new baristas (and journalists!), has long been accepted as “the way things are done” when using an espresso machine. That’s despite the fact that injuries directly related to the motion are literally among the most costly and time consuming injuries in all of food and beverage service.

On the KB90 you are required to make no such blind twisting motion. Instead you get the portafilter to click into the grouphead by simply… sliding the portafilter straight forward. It is deceptively simple both in concept and practice, but the engineering, design, and concepting work around it took years to perfect.

 

Using the mechanism feels like clicking on a pair of ski boots, or plugging in the Rumble Pak attachment to the controller of your N64. (I realize this reference dates me.) There is a uniquely satisfying haptic response, with bumpers that give a wonderful “click” sensation when the portafilter pops into place. Kent Bakke—who served as CEO of La Marzocco for decades—has been working since the late 90s to perfect this technology, and now, in the hands of the La Marzocco R&D team, that work is a reality. There is a reason why this is the first La Marzocco espresso machine named after an American.

The overall effect is tough to put into words; you simply have to click in and try it for yourself, which you’ll be able to do at upcoming marquee trade shows like Host and the 2019 SCA Event in Boston. There you’ll have the chance to see some of the other cool stuff this machine can do, including an automated group flush option that increases efficiency; a “Pro Touch” steam wand that uses double walled stainless steel to regulate temperature (no more burning the shit out of yourself on accident!); drip prediction tech adapted from the Modbar AV; improved ease of access for steam wand maintenance; and a design aesthetic that evokes the square block retro-futurist techno-chunk of a 1980s Ferrari, or the motorbike from Akira.

But even sitting here, writing this, a week or so removed from my preview time with the machine at LM USA headquarters in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, I can still hear and feel that satisfying *click*. There’s really nothing else quite like it.

“It’s fun,” Scott Guglielmino tells me. He’s a career espresso tech who has worked his way up through the company, starting first as an advisor on the Strada “street team,” to his role today as La Marzocco’s Global Product Manager. “Working on this machine is fun. But it also allows you to speed up while reducing hypertension—it’s supposed to be both fun and safe.”

Think about that for a second. Both fun and safe. Isn’t that the dream? In our shitshow of a toxic modern society, a slurry of constant aggressions both overt and micro, I think this might be all I really want in the world. For something to genuinely be both safe and fun.

La Marzocco conducted and outsourced a range of studies, including with the Italian ergonomics consultancy Faentia, that found the new tech in their filter holder required a lower amount of muscle engagement, could be used with the same efficiency by both left and right handed baristas, kept the forearm in a neutral position throughout usage of the machine, and engaged the whole arm-hand-wrist system while disengaging, as opposed to isolating movement to the hands and thumbs (a precursor for repetitive stress injury). It requires less total muscle engagement. It takes less time to train on. Execution time is shortened. As per the Faentia study this machine is safer and more efficient to use than the previous iteration of La Marzocco machines by a factor of twelve. 

It is both safe and fun.

There’s lots of ways to write about a new espresso machine, and at this point in my career (Sprudge turns ten years old this fall) I’ve done pretty much every version: technical, design-focused, brand-y, trade show beat, press release reblog, and on and on. But my response to the machine was above all else emotional. Technology in the right hands, in the right moment, has the power to make us feel stuff. That is an extraordinary power! The full summation of man’s command of the world around us! The orangutan fishing for grub worms with a stick dipped in honey, the Apollo space program engineer sending man to the moon and back on less computing power than an iPhone—a continuum of invention and innovation dating back before recorded memory, indeed, responsible for the technology to record memory in the first place. We can design and invent ourselves out of anything, from the earth to the heavens, including something as relatively conquerable and quantifiable as barista wrist.

The result is a sea change that I think is going to be integrated into the next several waves of espresso machine technology, wherein approaching any project with a health and safety mindset becomes not a novelty, not a disruption, but a basic tenet and focal point across the whole big wide world of coffee tech. This is a very good thing! Let’s see more R&D like this, more products dedicated to workplace safety for baristas, especially those without  subsidized access to healthcare. In twenty years I hope we look at “barista wrist” the same way we look at second hand smoke: a once-accepted workplace hazard of yesteryear. Big leaps in the interplay between tech and society quickly become mundane; that’s how you know they’ve been adopted. This is how you measure change.

This new espresso machine, the La Marzocco KB90, makes me feel optimistic about the future of coffee. What else is there really left to say?

Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge. 

For more on the La Marzocco KB90 visits its official website. 

Disclosure: La Marzocco is an advertising partner with the Sprudge Media Network

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